Does majoring in science make a difference?

By Razib Khan | December 9, 2010 2:16 pm

On occasion I get queries about what distinguishes people with science backgrounds from those who don’t have science backgrounds. I think an anecdote might illustrate the type of difference one is expecting. Back in undergrad I was having lunch with my lab partner, when a friend saw us and decided to chat with us as we ate. This friend is now an academic, and has a doctorate in a humanistic field (something like Comparative Literature, I forget). In any case, she had read something about transgenic organisms, and obviously felt as if it was the time and place to go on a rant about this. She knew that I was totally comfortable with the idea of transgenic organisms, but she recounted the fish-genes-in-tomato patent story to my lab partner to illustrate how gross the outcome could be. My lab partner was a pre-med math major, and she just shrugged and explained that she’d done biomedical research last summer, so she understood the practical necessity of such methods, and admitted that it would take more than a story about “fish genes” in a tomato to freak her out.

Kevin Drum’s post about the lack of Republican scientists makes me want to revisit the issue of science vs. non-science. I think the lack of Republican scientists is pretty straightforward. There’s the clear cultural gap, as the Republican party emphasizes its conservative Christian component, which turns off libertarian-leaning but secular scientists. And, there’s the reality that agencies like the NSF and NIH are often attacked by fiscal conservatives, and many scientists in academia and government depend on this funding. Sarah Palin’s attack on “fruit fly” research combined the two threads neatly and unfortunately.

In any case, there is a major related variable in the GSS, MAJORCOL. The sample sizes are not the best, but at least it was a recently asked demographic variable, 2006 and 2008. I decided to look at three sets, those with “natural science” degrees, those with “cs & engineering” degrees, and the total pot (inclusive of the first two classes). The last is a snapshot of all those with at least a college degree (the sample is restricted to those who completed their degree).

In the tables below each cell gives a percentage of the row in the column class. So in the first table 79% of CS & engineering degree holders are male. 22% of CS & engineering degree holders are Roman Catholic.

Basic Demographics

Race Religion
Male White Black Other Protestant Catholic No Religion
Natural Science 57 80 5 15 39 24 29
CS & Engineering 79 79 3 18 50 22 18
All Degree Holders 43 86 6 8 44 27 17

Ideology Party
2004 Vote
Liberal Moderate Conserv Dem Ind Rep Yes – Abortion on Demand Bush
Natural Science 43 27 30 47 16 37 70 43
CS & Engineering 30 27 43 37 13 50 54 58
All Degree Holders 33 29 38 48 10 42 52 52

Bible is…. Humans evolved Attitude about GMO food


Word of God Inspired Book of Fables Yes Not concerned Won’t eat Atheist & Agnostic Know God Exists
Natural Science 18 36 44 81 30 4 23 35
CS & Engineering 11 64 24 75 30 8 16 48
All Degree Holders 16 59 23 64 17 27 10 51

Verbal intelligence (WORDSUM vocab test score)
Dull (0-5) Not dull (6-8) Smart (9-10)
Natural Science 8 70 22
CS & Engineering 20 66 14
All Degree Holders 20 57 24

I assume no one is too surprised by these results. Here’s the code for the Majors:

MAJORCOL( r:8,11,24,33,41,51″Natural Science”; 14,18″CS and Engineering”;1-98″Full Sample”)

I counted biology, chemistry, geology, physics and mathematics as natural sciences. Math is probably a stretch. Computer science and engineering were obviously in the second category. Obviously there’s more you could do. For example, 49% of males with natural science degrees voted for George W. Bush in 2004, while 60% of those with cs & engineering degrees did. The total sample for males was 57% for Bush.

Many of the sample sizes are small, but they align with our intuition. Which perhaps makes them less than interesting….

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Data Analysis
MORE ABOUT: Analysis, Data, GSS
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  • albert magnus

    Republicans value private sector work=Engineer+CS (also Doctors,).
    Democrats value government and academic work=Natural Science.

    As I’ve worked in the private sector and academia and this is what drives it, and not so much the religious views.

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  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Republicans value private sector work=Engineer+CS (also Doctors,).

    i’d bracket out engineers from docs. a much smaller proportion of engineers’ income comes from gov. funds (contracts) than medical doctors (medicaid + medicare + emergency room).

  • BrianDH

    >Republicans value private sector work=Engineer+CS (also Doctors,).
    >Democrats value government and academic work=Natural Science.

    This issue has bothered me very much lately. I’m an undergrad majoring (at press time) in Cognitive Science as well as Philosophy, and I work in a neuroimaging (fMRI) lab (NSF and NIMH funded, of course) at my university. Granted, I’m 1-2 years off from grad school, but it looks like I’m headed in the “natural sciences” direction.*

    At the same time, I follow politics intensely (I often get asked if I’m a Poli. Sci. major) and I lean pretty heavily in the libertarian direction. The GOP makes me sick to my stomach sometimes, but I’m still generally more willing to side with it than the Democratic Party.

    So I face quite a conundrum, because I abhor the prospect of “sucking the government teat,” to put it crudely. Add onto that the relatively poor job prospects, the arcane machinations of academia, the general lean left at research institutions, and my rapid disillusionment pursuant to the “scientific ideal” versus scientific practice (hypothesis-by-press-release, jealous guarding of data, factionalism), and I find myself leaning strongly towards the private sector — even if that means shifting focus to something more “ready-for-retail” such as human-computer interaction or natural language processing.

    *Of some interest to this discussion, until fairly recently I was looking at Cog. Sci. and Comp. Sci., and before I discovered Cog. Sci., just Comp. Sci. I’m still most likely going to minor in Comp. Sci., Artificial Intelligence, or both, and besides being a research assistant at the aforementioned lab, I am also its underqualified *nix sysadmin.

  • r berk

    35% of nat. sci. students know that god exists???

  • Sandgroper

    #2 And there was me being told all us engineers are religious nuts who want to blow people up.

    Aside from the cost control necessary in design, I can see nothing about an engineering degree program to incline people to be more conservative and religious (and the numbers here suggest religious engineers are a bit less fundamentalist than religious scientists). Therefore I have to conclude, like you, that more conservatives choose engineering as a career, and that religion is not the issue. This accords with my own observation of my freshmen classmates (admittedly some time ago), i.e. they were already conservatives when they got there.

    Interestingly, the numbers suggest more engineers claim to be religious but are agnostic, which I read as a lot of engineers conforming but not thinking about it much. Times I try to discuss human origins etc with colleagues, their eyes glaze over, like “What does any of this have to do with anything?” whereas when I do the same with scientist colleagues, they invariably engage.

  • http://www.gnxp.com TangoMan

    The Pew poll defined scientist as someone who belongs to AAAS. I looked for a bit but I couldn’t find a source on their membership demographics. What I wanted to nail down was the split between university-based scientists, corporate scientists, scientists who are now in management. I suspect that there is selection bias in how Pew defines scientist. My hypothesis is that AAAS membership skews towards university academics to a greater degree than the career tracks of people who graduate from university with a Ph.D in a science discipline AND who continue to work in research.

    I find Nozick’s essay “Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?” fairly persuasive. It would be interesting to find some data on the political/ideological leanings of scientists working in pharma and other corporate research environments. Is there a sorting mechanism in play where more liberal scientists find university environments more appealing and more conservative scientists are finding the rewards of life in the corporate sector more appealing?

    There certainly is a large mismatch between your GSS-based results which looked at individuals degreed in science and the Pew results of individuals who belong to AAAS. A lot of people with science training are either jumping off the science education ladder and it looks like more liberals persist towards higher degrees or there is some serious selection bias involved in who elects to buy membership in AAAS.

    When you combine this question with the economic research on human capital factors you can certainly muddy up the waters that Drum thinks are crystal clear:

    Students in majors with higher average quantitative GRE scores are less likely to attend graduate school while students in majors with higher average verbal GRE scores are more likely to attend graduate school. This sorting effect means that students whose cognitive skills are associated with lower earnings at the bachelor’s level are the most likely to attend graduate school. As a result, there is a substantial downward bias in estimated returns to graduate education. Correcting for the sorting effect raises estimated annualized returns to a Master’s or doctoral degree from about 5% to 14.5% and 12.6% respectively. Estimated returns to professional degrees rise from 14% to 20%. These findings correspond to a large increase in relative earnings received by post graduate degree holders in the United States over the past 20 years.

    If Nozick is correct and conservatives are more amenable to market-based recognition of their skills then it is likely that the intellectual peers of future scientists are seeking alternative career tracks which offer rewards that they find more appealing and so the thesis of the Drum post, that the “smart” people, scientists being good proxies, reject associating with the Republican Party isn’t quite what it seems. I find this proxy argument more convincing than the notion that Drum is concerned that the actual work-related tasks performed by scientists tells us anything useful.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    . It would be interesting to find some data on the political/ideological leanings of scientists working in pharma and other corporate research environments.

    find it then. it’s out there, i stumbled on to it before. it was harder than i thought it would be. though the larsen and witham data show that gov. & private sector scientists are more religious than academics. might look through dan klein’s citations.

    i think the positive feed-back loop story has to be a big explanation for the effect fiwiw. it certainly seems to be so for religiosity. the main issue is that you’d need to correct for secularism; that’s such a strong predictor of liberalism that it would be of interest to see if scientists are more liberal than you’d expect from their secularism.

    though it is generally correct that white collar professionals as a whole have been trending to the left over the past generation. but many of them work in a regulated or gov. dependent sector (the legal and medical professions inextricably linked to the licensing and regulatory framework provided by the state, and the public fisc), and income is usually not scalable.

  • http://www.gnxp.com TangoMan

    find it then. it’s out there, i stumbled on to it before. it was harder than i thought it would be.

    If I had found that link I would have linked it and it would have made my comment stronger for it would have given data to test the hypothesis I offered. At some point the search has to stop, especially if I’m not engaged in a debate but just wandering off on a tangent.

    I agree with you on the positive feedback loop having large effect on outcome.

    it would be of interest to see if scientists are more liberal than you’d expect from their secularism.

    You’re right, that would be an interesting test. I’d think that the correlated factors of ideological identity would probably point to scientists being slightly more liberal than we’d expect. Your GSS analysis shows that those who majored in science are less conservative than all degree holders on a number of issues, so even if you can isolate the influence of secularism on the question of political identity there would still be the question of how well secularism correlates with the other factors associated with liberalism. I’m trying to think of a way to test the question and unravel the knot. What do you think of questions that focus on egalitarian issues as being indicators of liberalism and having weak correlations to secularism. There are, after all, plenty of religious people who are focused on charity and egalitarian work.

    Kevin Drum’s post about the lack of Republican scientists makes me want to revisit the issue of science vs. non-science.

    What was it about his post that sparked your response? I just didn’t buy into the 6% of scientists are Republicans conclusion.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    katherine kept asking for a year. the N’s were small.

  • dearieme

    Is 2004 a good choice of election? After all, nobody but an idiot would have voted for Kerry, because (i) he was the weakest candidate of a major party in memory, and (ii) it was important to leave that chump Bush impaled on his stupid and reckless Iraq war so that he couldn’t later blame his opponents for whatever awful outcomes ensued.

    Whereas in 2000 there was a balanced tension between voting against a teetotal, ex-boozer, “compassionate” conservative – ugh! – or against Slick Willie’s understrapper – ugh again.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Is 2004 a good choice of election?

    didn’t have 2008 data. and the further you go back, the more you lose younger cohorts. questions asked in 2006 and 2008.

    (i) he was the weakest candidate of a major party in memory,

    mondale? dukakis? dole?

  • Andrew Lancaster

    One major quirk in US politics compared to most Western countries is that you lack a “right liberal” of “economic liberal” party. Such parties are major forces in most democracies today. Oddly for a country where liberty is said to be so important, the word “liberal” has become such a hot potato in the US that no centrist or right wing person would ever dare use it? Your post makes it sound like this is a lack particularly meaningful in your case.

  • albert magnus

    Now that I think about this some more, I wonder if religious people, in the US, are more practical than non-religious people. After all, having a set of like-minded people to support you and pool resources is a very useful thing and worth some of the intellectual compromises. It might explain why engineers are more religious than scientists.

    I don’t have any data to support this, but my hunch is that the AAAS is life-science skewed. I worked in academic physics and didn’t know many people who were in the AAAS.

  • http://www.scholars-stage.blogspot.com T. Greer

    “i’d bracket out engineers from docs. a much smaller proportion of engineers’ income comes from gov. funds (contracts) than medical doctors (medicaid + medicare + emergency room).”

    What you say is true, but does the average voter know that? The voting game is about perceptions, not realities. Republicans favor those who appear to be productive members of society, working with private enterprise, eschewing arcane and obscure research agendas for the sake of actually going out into the world and helping people. Those are the folks Republicans like – even if they exist more in the voter’s mind than in the real world.

  • Miguel Madeira

    “Now that I think about this some more, I wonder if religious people, in the US, are more practical than non-religious people.”

    I think that practical people are usually, in irrelevant matters (like religion), more “conservative” than non-practical people.

    If you are a theoretical person and you were educated in a given religion, you will spend much time thinking about it and it is possible that you loose the faith, or join an alternative religion (or perhaps a dissident sect of your original religion).

    If you are a practical person, you will not loose your time thinking about religion, and much probably you will follow by default the religion/denomination where you were raised.

  • Miguel Madeira

    About the “liberalism” of scientist vs. the conservatism of engineers – nothing to see here: if we define conservatism as “distrust of big and abstract theories in favor of practical experience”, of course that people in practical fields will be more conservative than people in abstract fields.

  • Miguel Madeira

    > One major quirk in US politics compared to most Western countries is that you lack a “right liberal” of “economic liberal” party. Such parties are major forces in most democracies today.

    Right-liberal parties in Europe, like german FDP, are usually small parties (even parties like dutch VVD or danish Liberals, who today are the biggest parties of government, where smaller parties during much of 20th century). Join that with the US electoral system (FPTP + primaries + electoral college elected by WTA in most states), that makes third parties almost impossible, and probably you have the reason because there is not a serious right-liberal party in US (nor a christian democrat, nor a socialist, nor a green, nor a nationalist/populist party…)

  • LawStudent

    I think a lot of liberals would dismiss the conclusions in the GSS since it looks only at those with a bachelor’s degree in the sciences/engineering, while the slate article refers to “scientists” which I guess implies that the people polled by pew all had PhDs. This would be construed to say that liberals are intellectually curious while republicans are satisfied by doing regular coursework which does not require lots of thought.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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